Sitting on the porch this evening, celebrating my regained sense of hearing, I take in all of nature’s early spring sounds. I had spent the day operating a fire engine with my ears covered by a headset, and my hearing isolated to the infrequent radio chatter of the burn crew. In the valley below me, Red-winged Blackbirds are noisily staking claim to unburnt patches of vegetation, warbling Bluebirds are checking out nest boxes, and several male turkeys (Toms) are in full display, strutting around to impress the nearby hens. The pond is busy too, with Hooded Mergansers, Wood Ducks, Mallards, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, Buffleheads, Lesser Scaups and Canada Geese, each grouped together by species and occupying their little segregated areas of water. Somewhere in this mix of nature’s audio composition, I hear the unmistakable sound of “cree-ee-ee-eek.”
My ears tune to the sound, and I hear it again near the pond’s edge. Shortly, it’s answered by another from the sedge meadow, followed by another in the sand boil (spring). Within minutes, the valley erupts in a full chorus of Western Chorus Frog calls. I smile, my body relaxes, and I close my eyes to amplify the sweet refrain of the frogs. A week ago, we had burned this valley prairie comprised of a complex system of wetlands, while the ground was still frozen and ice covered the pond. Every time we burn it, I worry my timing is off, and it will do significant harm to the reptile and amphibian populations. This is the delicate dance we restoration practitioners play with fire. I call it walking the fire line – in this case, timing a prescribed burn for when conditions are just dry enough to remove thatch to benefit native plant species, but early enough to avoid harming reptiles and amphibians that are still hibernating.
Why take the risk and burn at all? Tallgrass prairie evolved with fire, and prairie flora and fauna are dependent on fire to maintain their habitats. The chorus frog needs fire to maintain the lush grasslands it depends on. However, fire and frogs in the same space at the same time don’t mix. The situation is even more complicated because we only have small, isolated pockets of tallgrass prairie remaining. This increases the risk of significant losses from improperly timed, or sized (quantity of area burned) fire with no opportunity for replacing the losses from nearby areas. Restoration practitioners manage rare ecosystems with many endangered flora and fauna species that have conflicting management needs. This is the reality we must navigate as we struggle to accomplish our ecological objectives and maintain biodiversity.
The ecological objectives for our valley prairie burn were to stimulate the native flora by removing the bulk of plant thatch, to burn only a portion of the wetland complex, and to do no harm to reptiles or amphibians (especially the at-risk Pickerel frog). To do this, we burn right after snow melt with high relative humidity conditions for a somewhat “incomplete” burn that leaves patches of thatch and heavier plant stalks around for some thatch-overwintering insect survival and shelter areas for small mammals and early pond-breeding, migrating amphibians.
As the evening slips into night, the chorus frog calls give way to the piercing peep of the Spring Peepers. Soon to follow, we’ll hear the long trill of the American toad and the subtle snore of the Pickerel Frog as it calls from underwater. As the toad’s breeding activity wraps up, both the Eastern and Gray tree frogs come on the scene with their mellow and harsh trills respectively. And last on the scene is the banjo-twang call of the Green Frog.
The cool settling air accentuates the smell of smoke and drip torch fuel on my clothes and body. I need a shower, I think. I slowly stand and stretch my stubborn legs to hold the weight of my body. The Chorus Frogs and Spring Peepers have given me a nod of approval this evening - a satisfying feeling of a worthwhile deed.